"We are empowered and we won’t stop."
On Monday, October 3rd, 7 million women in 60 different cities in Poland went on strike to protest a law proposed by Ordo Iuris, leader of the conservative advocacy group Stop Abortion, that would criminalize abortions, making the procedure punishable by up to five years in prison for both medical providers as well as women. Currently, rape carries a minimum prison sentence of two years, meaning women who decide to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape may be imprisoned up to twice as long as their assailant. According to official government reports, nearly half of all reported offenders received sentences of one to two years, and most rape convictions occur when the victim is under 15 years old.
Poland already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the EU, where abortion is allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or when health risks are involved for the mother or fetus. About 1,000 legal abortions are performed annually, while an estimated 150,000 are done illegally. Activists used drones to fly abortion pills into the country in June 2015.
The proposed law would ban abortion entirely in an attempt by Prime Minister Beata Szydło to return to Catholic values. An estimated 87% of Polish citizens are Roman Catholic, and 74% supported current abortion restrictions. Yet the possibility of women facing trial or imprisonment for miscarriages has united Polish women over the issue. Polling company Ipsos found 50% of Poles support the strike, with 15% saying they would like to take part, amounting to nearly six million people. If passed, Poland would join only two other European countries which ban abortion outright: the Vatican and Malta.
According to one supporter, Małgorzata Łodyga, “My mother is very Catholic, goes to church every Sunday, and is against abortion just because you might not want the child. But she is against this law, because if a woman is raped, she will be treated worse than the man who raped her.”
Thousands of women began protesting last week to drum up momentum for Monday’s strike. Known as the “black protest," participators were encouraged to wear all black. Organizers chose black as a symbol of mourning over the loss of their rights, while counter-protesters wore all white in opposition. Women waved coathangers and signs reading “Women are not incubators.”
Magda Staroszczyk, a strike coordinator, told The Guardian, “A lot of women and girls in this country have felt that they don’t have any power, that they are not equal, that they don’t have the right to an opinion. This is a chance for us to be seen, and to be heard.”
Reactions have been overwhelmingly supportive. Local businesses granted female employees the day off, and some universities canceled lectures for the day. Polish and Irish women marched together in solidarity in September against restrictive reproductive legislation, as they fight to repeal the 8th amendment, which declares a woman’s life equal to a fetus'. Additionally, EU commissioner for justice and gender equality Vera Jourova wore all black on Wednesday and called for equality in health coverage.
The Minister of Science and Education, Jarosław Gowin, responded shortly after, saying the protests “caused us to think and taught us humility,"and MPs voted to reject the bill by 352 votes to 58.
The strike was modelled after Iceland’s October 1975 protest for economic equality, when 90% of women did not go to work and refused to do housework for the day. According to a press release from event organizers, a second event will take place on October 24th. The Facebook event page for the protest shows over nearly 3,000 planning to attend so far:
"The action on October the 3rd is a form of warning. The 41st Anniversary of the Icelandic strike will be on 24 October and we allow for the possibility that, if the protests are ignored by the authorities, that day will become the next date when Polish women express their opposition, loudly and en masse."
In a moving article for The Guardian, Krystyna Kacpura, who has fought for women’s rights in Poland for over two decades, describes the enormous momentum of Monday’s strike: “I have never seen such huge protests. Something snapped in Polish women; we are empowered and we won’t stop. The protests were so spontaneous: with barely a few days’ notice thousands of women were walking out of work, and if they couldn’t get the day off, many told me, they said to their bosses they would not return because they could not work alongside people who did not believe in their rights.”
Black Monday has shown the tremendous impact women can have when we come together in solidarity. The events in Poland have been felt by women around the world, and, with any luck, the October 24th protests will continue to mount pressure on the government to grant full rights for women to make their own decisions about their bodies.
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Myra Pearson is a freelance writer and poet from Blacksburg, Virginia. She resides in Seoul, Korea, where she teaches at Duksung Woman's University. he is the editor of Period Magazine, a non-profit zine for women in the literary and visual arts. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and her first book of poems is forthcoming. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.